Cooped Up in a
By Lee Binz
A parent recently asked me for help with her teenager. She described how her son was burned out, stressed out, and struggling to keep up. She worried that he was failing.
When I talk to parents with these concerns, it usually points to one thing. It was the end of the day, so I just blurted it out, "I was wondering . . . are you involved in a co-op?"
"How did you know?" she replied.
It’s obvious you’re stuck in a homeschool co-op when it’s not a good fit. Parents who come to me with concerns about academics, failure, or socialization problems tend to be using co-ops for core classes. In an effort to do things right, co-op classes may provide an assembly-line production of lessons much like a public school. Students become frustrated because they can't keep up, or bored because they are so far ahead.
Many homeschool fads come and go. The homeschool co-operative is a current fad. Like many fads, co-ops can be helpful for some and hurtful for others. Even though they are popular, a homeschool co-op may not work for your family. How do you know when you are cooped up in a co-op?
12 Ways to Know if You Are Cooped Up in a Homeschool Co-op
- Mom or Dad feel guilty and anxious
- Learning styles don’t fit
- Parent or student frustration over time lost
- Expenses for gas, fees, and books feel too high
- Excessive homework or homework feels mis-matched to the student
- Increased workload for homeschool parents – feeling frantically busy
- Parents feel trapped, stifled, hemmed-in, and/or frustrated but also feel incapable of stopping
- Parents don’t have freedom to modify the class
- Child is becoming peer-dependent or easily swayed by bad behavior
- Originally left public school because classroom setting did not fit
- Parents are made to feel incapable or inadequate
- The curriculum used doesn’t match family values
This can happen because parents are delegating responsibility and losing control. The more they delegate, the more anxious they feel. If learning styles aren’t accounted for, the child may begin to fail. If the teaching isn’t individualized to each student, the student may waste time with busy work or be given more homework than they can possibly accomplish.
Presiding over all this anxiety are the two enemies of homeschooling: guilt and fear.
Guilt and Fear
You don't have to feel guilty about being involved in a co-op; just make sure it's a fit for you and your child. Don’t feel guilty about leaving a co-op, either. You are responsible for your own child’s education, not anyone else’s. You don't have to feel guilty about teaching at home, where modern homeschooling has taken place for decades
Fear based homeschooling suggests you are less than capable. It says you need a teacher to teach subjects and a classroom setting for socialization. But great socialization frequently occurs outside of academic environments. It occurs when a person lives in society and interacts with people of all ages. When parents ask my advice about socialization, I recommend they separate socialization and academics. Pursued separately, your children can succeed at both without feeling better than or less than because of their academic abilities.
Successful homeschooling occurs when you use a homeschool curriculum that assumes you don’t know anything. It happens when you choose a self-teaching curriculum that makes it easy for the student to learn. You don’t need to become a subject expert. Instead, choose a curriculum meant for homeschoolers. Be consistent, working through the curriculum regularly, and you can be successful with any subject you teach in your own home. You don't have to know it, and you don't have to teach it - you just need to make sure they learn it.
Choose a curriculum that matches your student. If it works, keep using it. If it's not working, stop! Do something else! Don't be afraid to use a co-op to meet your child's needs. But don't be afraid to avoid co-ops, either!
As homeschooling becomes more common, there seems to be an increase in peer pressure. Parents feel they should join a homeschool co-op, participate in dual enrollment, use a specific curriculum, or join an accreditation group. I encourage parents to look at their children, not other parents, as they make decisions about school. Instead of searching for the latest and greatest ideas or curriculum, focus on tried and true methods.
There are several reasons a co-op might be a good choice for your family. The first is if your child is a social learner who only blossoms in a school social setting. This is a powerful indication that a co-op might be a good fit (but remember that the other students in the co-op might not be good fit for your child).
Another positive indication that a co-op might be worth a shot is if education simply isn’t happening. I’m not talking about true unschooling or learning from natural experience. To be blunt, I’m talking about sit-on-the-couch-no-light-in-the-attic-dead-from-the-shoulders-up-stage-five-cluelessness. If this is your situation, then by all means take evasive action and see if a co-op might jump-start your dead battery. One homeschool mom explained it this way, “I wish I was an unschooler but in truth I’m a non-schooler.” She needed a better plan for education.
Another great reason to try a co-op is if you are in the middle of an illness or crisis and simply can’t be emotionally, mentally, or physically present to homeschool. In such cases it is certainly understandable to try a co-op before putting your kids back in public or private school.
In fact, there is a simple three-step process to help you determine whether a co-op is worth a try:
- If whatever you are doing is working, keep doing it.
- If it isn’t working, do something different.
- Don’t let peer pressure influence what you know is right for your kids.
Don’t join groups or try something new just because someone else is. If things are working, don’t change anything! Avoid peer pressure - even pressure from other well-meaning homeschool parents. Use what works, do what works, and only make a change if something is not working well.
One of my clients’ children was involved in a co-op for most of his core classes. As much as he loved being with his friends, the classical education and great books curriculum did not match his kinesthetic learning style. His mom was able to modify some of the co-op classes and planned to keep him in the classes to simply listen to the wonderful lectures. She told the co-op she would not use the graded papers and tests as the basis of her child’s homeschool grade. She refused to demand that he complete their assignments, and relied on evaluation by discussion instead.
But in the co-op, they give tests, and her student failed because his learning follows a different path. Not because he doesn't know the subject but because he reads books that support his love of learning, rather than the books assigned.
This mother recognized that it's the learning that is important, not the grades. Good job, Mom! Yet I wonder how the child must feel, failing tests even though he understands the course content. And what about parents that (mistakenly) feel pressured to include co-op grades on a transcript?
There are five critical factors that need to be in place and working for your co-op experience to be successful. These are:
If any of these five variables is off, then your experience in the co-op will be sub-optimal. For example, if everyone raves about the teacher but you can tell that many of the students are juvenile delinquents, it won’t work for you. Or perhaps they use the perfect curriculum for your teen and the kids are great, but the teacher has control issues and it won’t work for you.
You see, those five factors are critical for any learning situation, whether in private school, public school, co-op, or independent homeschool. But of those four education options, guess which one gives you the most control of the five variables? That’s right, independent homeschooling!
This doesn’t mean you can’t muscle through the gag reflex and make the co-op work, but know that you will likely have a struggle on your hands. Proceed with caution, with your eyes wide open.
Tried and True Homeschooling
Years ago, the whole concept of a homeschool co-op was completely different than the current system. My older homeschool friends tell me that they used co-ops to help homeschool. When you ask them what it was like, it's in stark contrast to today's model.
In years past, a co-op meant three or four families coming together once a week. They would share science labs, musical groups, unit studies, or hands-on experiences with all their children together. When such moms reminisce, they don't mention tests or classrooms. There were no concerns about child care or negative socialization. Instead, they talk about their time bonding with a small group of students and parents.
When you read many of the popular homeschool books, they sometimes suggest families use co-ops during high school. When you read suggestions like this, please remember that there were no mega-co-ops at the time most of these books were written! Instead, those books are typically referring to small groups of families sharing learning experiences.
Today, some of the mega co-ops may include hundreds of families and some even have a thousand or more. The families may not know each other and leaders may not even recognize some of the students! The students are in age-segregated classrooms with more than a dozen students per class. With so many students in age-segregated classrooms, you begin to wonder how this is considered homeschooling. In some places, co-ops have completely replaced homeschool support groups, casual park days, and play-learn arrangements. This makes it difficult to get the support homeschool parents need.
Stories from Real Parents like You
With their permission, I want to share stories from other moms weary of being cooped up in co-ops. These parents have poured out their hearts. I encourage you to read each story and glean any information that will help your own family.
It has been a very difficult year for us. In fact, we are considering bailing out particularly for our younger child who is in 8th grade this year. It's a long and convoluted story fraught with intense emotions on all sides. The irony is that I serve on the board of our homeschool group and have been deeply involved in planning our homeschool conference. I will be hosting a panel discussion on homeschooling through high school. Can you believe it? Perhaps some great epiphany will happen that will change our current thinking.
In a nutshell, the co-op that we were in for four years was perhaps our "undoing." Because my children viewed the co-op moms as their teachers, and I was preoccupied preparing and teaching other classes, we effectively quit homeschooling at that point. I became a teacher to other children and merely a homework helper to my own. Culturally, they became attached to the idea of being in classes with peers and my younger child in particular is extremely apathetic for learning of any sort outside of that environment (which is where we are this year). This child was not that way prior to the co-op experience.
I am sick and wracked with guilt. I can only say that God is sovereign and knows even our mistakes and shortcomings. What is uppermost in my heart is to still be a steward over my child's education, whatever form that might take. My oldest child (whose transcripts you did last year) has had outside classes (physics, history, literature, and government) and is being tutored in geometry and pre-calculus. In a similar vein, this child does extremely well in the classes taken outside the home, but we fail at any sort of independent study. We are also unsure of what we will do for this child next year.
I want others to learn the dangers of abdicating their stewardship to a co-op. If I could craft a warning, it would be that co-ops not try to be a "school." That transforms the moms into professional (i.e. stressed) teachers rather than homeschoolers of their own children. The dynamic in the home is shifted from learning alongside your child to looking in on homework assignments while grading other students' work. It grieves me to see the younger moms in the co-op - those with children 3rd grade and under - strapped to workbooks when they could be out building forts and learning about nature and bugs, reading great books and having fun. The atmosphere there is stress, stress, and more stress. What is fostered is a loathing for "study." This is the exact reason why we chose not to do public or private school. So, what I have this year is a child who loathes studying. The joy is gone. Please use my words! I hope others may benefit from my experience.
~Mark and Diane from Illinois
My family decided to try a homeschool co-op this school year. We are true unschoolers at heart, not radical, I do more than "strew" things around for certain children at certain times. Yet we like our freedom too much and this year is killing us and me in particular!
Since January, we've been doing one co-op on Monday and a different co-op on Tuesday, in other words two co-ops. The Tuesday one is only a half day now, so is less stress than the first semester. Then girl scouts and cub scouts are on Thursday, bi-weekly at least not every week, but once in a while there is a weekend commitment for scouts. This probably doesn't sound like an intense schedule to some of you but it is all LONG DRIVES. It is 40 minutes (best commutes) each way Mondays, 45 minutes (again best case scenario) each way Tuesdays, 40 each way for any scout stuff. It's all too much time on the road!
Then there is the HOMEWORK! Two of the kids have four classes each between it all and one has two classes. For most of them there always seems to be insane homework like make a poster but it has to be on this exact size paper, one week it was draw five state symbols for each of three states (15 things to draw!), reports to do, vocabulary to learn, worksheets to fill out and polls to take and cooking homework (ok that wasn't bad it was cookies). It is INSANE. It leads to family disharmony when I have to be the mean old homework monitor.
Then there are the GERMS, we keep catching everything. We're sick now, we're always sick! People are always coughing and sneezing there are always sick people at these co-ops so you just know you're going to catch things! And the EARLY MORNINGS, that part is awful and none of the kids likes to get going early in the winter, neither do I for that matter. We tend to have tears from at least one person every single co-op morning (and it's not always me crying, LOL).
Plus, the EXPENSE, each co-op has various fees with each co-op being about $250 when all is said and done. Not counting gas and not counting various scout expenses that I've lost track of, I could have bought some cool homeschooling things with that money and stayed HOME!
Today, I'm home from another co-op day myself, it was a difficult one but I'm still processing the day and can't type it out yet. I do know it would need the soundtrack of “we're not going to take it anymore” and the lead character would be an active, just turned 10-year-old blond boy who ran out of class and onto the play area outdoors shouting "I don't want to sit and learn any more about Johnny Appleseed. I know enough about him, I want to play." LOL! Then the leader of the co-op finding me and saying "are you Colin's Mom, we need to have a little talk." Sigh!
I just wonder why we give in to the thoughts that we need things like co-ops and I even more wonder why there aren't more groups who get together just to get together, not for classes. Everyone wants classes or thinks they do. I just don't quite understand why.
I'm trying to think about how it all turned so much to co-ops. Now it seems when you meet a homeschooler you don't know yet, they ask what co-op you attend or classes you take. When I started 8.5 years ago I don't remember there being such a focus on co-ops and classes. Those are right for some people but not all.
It's good to talk (type) these things out. When I think about it I realize that joining the co-op was about fear. So many use them now (and it’s OK some of my friends love homeschool co-ops) it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking it's something we need for our kids. When I think hard about it, I remember how much better our days went before we tried co-ops. Well, we wouldn't ever know unless we tried, so it's not all bad. Now we know! Can you remind me not to do this next year? OK, I'm done venting.
~Jodi in New Hampshire
I don't presume to know what is right for your situation. I can happily tell you, however, that the love you have for your child gives you the ability to make decisions for yourself. Don't be concerned about what others are doing; simply focus on what is right for your child.
On the other hand, the current homeschool community has become so focused on co-ops that there is a tremendous amount of pressure to join them. I encourage you to shed any pressure to join or not join. Instead, open your eyes, educate yourself, and decide.
I recognize that it's not all about academics, of course, but what are the academic goals of homeschooling? You want to instill a lifelong love of learning and ignite a passion that can lead to a meaningful career.
To achieve these goals, make sure your child is learning at their level in every subject, all the time. If they struggle with a concept, wait until they get it before moving on. Match their learning style with your learning style. This dance can take stops and starts through the year, with frequent adjustments.
The Leadership Trap
Notice the mom in the first letter was an involved leader in the homeschool community, which is laudable. Unfortunately, she had fallen into what I call the leadership trap. This happens when a can-do homeschool mom sees a need in her circle of homeschool friends and jumps in to fill the gap. It might be as a co-op teacher, convention coordinator, homeschool group leader, or any other good deeds in the homeschool universe. The trap happens when the good deed gets in the way of your prime directive. Here is the problem.
What is the homeschool prime directive?
Repeat after me: “The prime directive of my homeschool is educating my child!”
If you fall into the trap of trying to educate the world while failing to educate your child, you are snagged in the leadership trap. If you feel like your homeschool leadership commitments prevent you from taking care of your homeschooling commitments, you are tangled in the leadership trap. Some seasoned homeschool parents I know regret the years spent in leadership and feel they lost sight of their own children’s education. They regret being distracted by their leadership positions in the co-op or convention committee.
You are not responsible for homeschooling the world, just your children. Pride tells us that the world needs us to get the job done. If it’s a valuable service to the community, it will continue without you. We need to fight the temptation to be distracted from our own children.
Think of it this way, when Jesus was baptized, a voice came from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Notice the Father didn’t say, “This is my beloved son, in whom I would have been well pleased if he hadn’t squandered the first 30 years of his life being a carpenter!”
There is a time and place for everything. When you are homeschooling, your priority should be on your children, just as the young Christ prioritized His family before it was time for His ministry.
To fall into the leadership trap is understandable. If you don’t take action to extricate yourself once you recognize it for what it is, however, it may be because of pride. The world will still turn on its axis if you step down as chair of the “universal committee for the betterment of all homeschoolers everywhere.”
Reaching the Goal
Executive Summary for Busy Parents
Co-ops are a current homeschool fad. While they may be popular among your friends, you do not need to use a co-op to homeschool. A homeschool co-op is a tool you can choose to use, or not use, depending on your child’s needs. You are capable of teaching your child at home the old-fashioned way, that has consistently worked in the modern age of homeschooling. You are responsible to educate your child, not the world.
If a co-op is causing you stress, or you think it is doing more harm than good, please take an objective look at the situation. Regardless of what other parents choose to do, you are only responsible for your child's education, and that should be the focus of your decisions during this season of life.
If a homeschool co-op is the right choice for your child, please remember that grades they receive in a co-op only represent a portion of their grade for each subject. Usually co-op instructors are not certified teachers and they only see your child for perhaps an hour each week. You know more than they do about the learning your child accomplishes. Your child’s transcript grade should reflect their total learning, not only what takes place in a classroom setting one day a week. Unless the co-op is an accredited program or affiliated with state-sponsored oversight, it is still your job to provide grades for the high school transcript.
For more information about capturing co-op experiences on homeschool records, see my article, “How to Include Homeschool Co-Op Classes on High School Records.”
Are You Cooped Up in a Co-op?
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